In English Grammar in Use, it is said that we have to use past simple instead of present perfect for things that are not recent or new:

Use the past simple (not the present perfect) for things that are not recent or new:
Mozart was a composer. He wrote more than 600 pieces of music. (not has been ... has written)

However, later in the same book, there is the following example:

Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China.

Tell me if I'm wrong but it is present perfect ; for simplicity, we can rephrase the above sentence like this:

Fireworks have been invented in China.

It seems to be a contradiction. The invention of the fireworks is not a recent event. According to the first example, we should use past simple.

In this answer, it is said:

There is no limit on how far back an event occurred, the only requirement is that we are talking about the state or effects of the event in the present.

Should I conclude we can use present perfect for recent events and English Grammar in Use is wrong about that?

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    No, this has nothing to do with the presence or otherwise of the date. This is about the grammar of "supposed to"; you simply can't say " *Fireworks are supposed to were invented..." Apr 6, 2021 at 19:24
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    Also, it is not a rule that the present perfect can only be used with recent events; we could say This city has been invaded ten times in the last 500 years. I think the sentence in English Grammar In Use is too broad. We would only not say "Mozart has written..." because Mozart is not around to write anything any more; his writing is complete.
    – stangdon
    Apr 6, 2021 at 19:28
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    You could rewrite the sentence as "It is supposed that fireworks were invented in China", or "People think that fireworks were invented in China." Great minds think alike, @Mari-LouA ! Apr 6, 2021 at 19:38
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    @Eugene if the book is aimed at beginners then of course it has to be simplified. The same book is also in print form for intermediate and advanced learners. The CGEL is very advanced, (and very expensive), it's good for language teachers too, but less so for someone who has only been studying English for one or two years.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2021 at 12:04
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    cambridge.org/us/files/6615/4834/7123/… The actual explanations are not wrong, they are generally speaking, perfectly fine. This volume is aimed at Intermediate learners
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2021 at 12:07

2 Answers 2

  • "Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China."

Tell me if I'm wrong but it is present perfect

"Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China" is not a use of the present perfect. This is a common misunderstanding.

The present perfect involves the use of a present-tense form of the auxiliary "have" followed by a past participle.

In this case, the auxiliary "have" is non-finite - it is an infinitive. As an infinitive, it is untensed. As it's untensed, it isn't present tense. And as it isn't present tense, the construction as a whole isn't present perfect.

So whereas "I have been" is present perfect and "I had been" is past perfect, "to have been" is a perfect infinitive (or infinitive perfect). "Have been" in "I must have been" is likewise a perfect infinitive.

Often, a sentence that involves a subordinate clause with a finite perfect (whether present perfect or past perfect) can be recast to use a perfect infinitive instead. For example, "She believed that he had kissed me" could become "She believed him to have kissed me".

Similarly, "Fireworks were supposed to have been invented in China" might correspond to "I/we/they supposed/believed that fireworks had been invented in China".

("Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China" would more naturally correspond to a sentence with a present tense "suppose" in the main clause and the simple past "invented" in the subordinate clause: "They suppose that fireworks were invented in China".)

Still, it is untrue that the present perfect can only describe new or recent events. You could ask me "Have you ever visited China?" and I could reply "I have - but that was fifty years ago!". We could also say "Over several millennia, many kingdoms have risen and fallen in this region" even if the most recent one was centuries ago.

  • …but that was fifty years ago! note you used the simple past "was" because you know that the event happened at a specific point in the past. In English, people wouldn't normally say "…but that has been fifty years ago!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2021 at 18:37
  • @MariLouA True. I used both the simple past and, in the first half of my reply, the present perfect ("I have" - with the rest understood). The two sentences "I have visited China" and "I visited China fifty years ago" could refer to exactly the same visit, but as soon as you make the time period explicit, the present perfect becomes ungrammatical, or at least highly questionable. (It is the same if you say "last week".) I considered getting into all this in my answer but I suspect it's all been covered before. I voted for your answer too though, as it complements mine.
    – rjpond
    Apr 7, 2021 at 18:43
  • Yes, it's been covered before, extensively. But questions about the usage of the present perfect is, I think, still very common, and tomorrow someone else will ask a new Q. But I liked the OP. It was a bit different from the rest.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 7, 2021 at 18:56
  • @rjpond— But how do you account for the fact that must have been and perhaps to have been don't show tense when it could be easily inferred from a sentence using these forms that there is a "past time" involvement? Is this something that hinges on the difference between tense and aspect?
    – user126190
    Apr 19, 2021 at 8:56
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    @User40475 Yes. I use the term "tense" to refer to inflectional tense, and "aspect" for the perfect/nonperfect and progressive/nonprogressive distinctions. (There is, though, a debate among grammarians about whether the perfect is a question of aspect or of secondary tense.) Secondly, I think we have to distinguish between "past tense" and "past time". Tense is a matter of grammar, time a matter of semantics. A statement can be present tense and yet refer to future time (e.g. "I fly to Madrid next week") or it can be past tense and yet refer to a hypothetical present/future after "if".
    – rjpond
    Apr 19, 2021 at 9:26

Some people think the invention of fireworks must have happened over a thousand years ago. In the OP's sentence

Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China.

the focus is not "when" but "where". In other words, the statement is focused on China and, presumably, its deserved reputation for resourcefulness and skills in problem-solving which continues to the present day.
The fact that people hold the the same belief is still true today.

It's also worth pointing out that “supposed to have happened” and “must have happened” is the language of speculation. This type of construction is typically used to speculate about the past, when the speaker expresses certainty for an action that happened (must + have + PP); certainty when an action did not happen (can't /couldn't + have + PP); the uncertainty (may/might not + have + PP) or the possibility (may/might/could) that the action happened.

in the ACTIVE voice

  • China must have invented fireworks.
  • China can't have invented fireworks.
  • China may/might (not)/ could have invented fireworks.

In the PASSIVE voice it is

  • Fireworks must have been invented in China
  • Fireworks can't (or ‘cannot’) have been invented in China
  • Fireworks may have been invented in China

The original PASSIVE sentence

  1. Fireworks are supposed to have been invented in China.

transformed into the ACTIVE voice is

  1. People suppose that fireworks have been invented in China.

We can use the present perfect tense because the assumption is still true today, it is an opinion that surfaced decades, maybe even hundreds of years ago but it continues to the present day. However, the author could have also written the following

  1. People suppose that fireworks were invented in China.
  2. It is supposed that fireworks were invented in China.

And here the author fixes the event firmly in the past, they don't need to mention the date, it's just understood that the invention occurred sometime in the distant past.

Therefore, sentences 1, 2, 3 and 4 are all correct.

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